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Is Lab-Grown Coffee the New Lab-Grown Meat? Here’s How Researchers Say It Can Benefit the Planet

Lab-grown coffee has officially arrived. Here's what it is and how researchers say it can benefit the planet.

Written by
Kylie Fuller

Climate change is making it harder and harder to grow coffee. Aka not the best news for the millions of Americans who sip it every morning.

As temperatures rise and the weather becomes extreme, crop diseases are more common in the coffee-growing regions of the world. According to research from Columbia University’s Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, as much as three-quarters of the land currently used to grow Arabica coffee—the most common coffee species—will no longer be suitable for farming by 2050.

In 2012, World Coffee Research began collaborating with coffee roasters and farmers across the coffee belt to help save coffee from the effects of climate change. But scientists may have found a new way to ensure coffee's survival: Growing coffee plant cells in bioreactors. Aka lab-grown coffee.

What Is Lab-Grown Coffee?

It sounds like an experiment from a sci-fi movie, but researchers at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland are using the same techniques to make lab-grown coffee as those used to make lab-grown meat. According to Fast Company, "coffee plant cells are cultured in the lab, then placed in bioreactors filled with nutrient medium to grow."

Because they're working with plants and not animals, lab-grown coffee is much easier to make; plant cells require less complex nutrients, making the process faster and cheaper. "Scaling up is also easier because plant cells grow freely, suspended in the medium, while animal cells grow attached to surfaces," Heiko Rischer, a research team leader at VTT, told Fast Company.

How Lab-Grown Coffee Benefits the Planet

According to the scientists involved, lab-grown coffee tastes and smells just like normal coffee, despite being made in a Petri dish. But it comes with the added benefit of being able to help mitigate climate change.

The coffee industry contributes significantly to deforestation. While shade-grown coffee circumvents the need to cut down trees, between 40-65% of the coffee grown in Colombia, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean is sun-grown. Over 20 million hectares of forest have been burned or cut down globally this year.

Coffee production is also water-intensive. A single cup of coffee requires 140 liters of water to produce. But good news: Lab-grown coffee could become more mainstream sooner than you think.

"The experience of drinking the very first cup was exciting. I estimate we are only four years away from ramping up production and having regulatory approval in place," said Rischer in a press release. "Growing plant cells requires specific expertise when it is time to scale and optimize the process. Downstream processing and product formulation together with regulatory approval and market introduction are additional steps on the way to a commercial product. That said, we have now proved that lab-grown coffee can be a reality."

A More Planet-Friendly Cup of Coffee

How can lab-grown coffee reduce the environmental impact of your caffeine fix?

According to scientists, lab-grown coffee can offset the growing demand for coffee. As coffee farmers in the coffee belt are overwhelmed with demand, deforestation becomes the go-to way to increase production. Lab-grown coffee could alleviate the pressure on the coffee belt.

At the same time, coffee production is often outsourced to places like Finland. But these regions aren't suited to coffee farming, making the process even more resource intensive. Lab-grown coffee will allow places outside the coffee belt to "grow" coffee locally, which also reduces the environmental impact of shipping coffee around the world.

Compared to the production of animal meat, lab-grown meat is estimated to use 7-45% less energy, create 78-96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, use 82-96% less water, and—depending on the type of meat—use 99% less land. If lab-grown coffee can parallel this environmental impact, it could play a critical role in saving the coffee belt.